The Best of the Canal du Midi
If, as is often said, we are constantly walking in the footsteps of our ancestors, then nowhere is this truer than the towpaths, locks and inland ports of the Canal du Midi.
Constructed between 1667 and 1681, the canal linked the French Atlantic coast with the Mediterranean and utilised sophisticated systems of locks, aqueducts, bridges, feeder canals and pounds not seen in Britain until the start of the Industrial Age almost a century later. For 300 years, until freight traffic ceased in the 1980s, heavily laden barges mostly containing wheat and wine travelled sedately along the tree lined canal, towed by horses (the marks of their tow ropes still visible on some of the stonework) until the introduction of diesel engined barges in the 1920s, providing a living and a way of life for generations of bargees and their families.
But, despite the diesel engine, the electrification of the locks in the 1940s, the proximity of the roads and railways of modern France and the advent of canal boat tourism, there are sections of the canal where it is easy to imagine that one is travelling in the wake or footsteps of those bargees, so little has their appearance changed. From the trees (willow, poplar and plane) providing welcome shade to the towpath, to the original stone aqueducts, spillways and bridges, the lockkeepers cottages (converted to other uses today despite the enduring presence of the lockkeepers themselves), the locks with their unique curved walls and the villages and towns along its route, there is much of the canal that would be familiar to the bargees of one, two or even three centuries ago.
I first had the privilege of cruising the Canal du Midi in 2013, a highly enjoyable 10 days from Narbonne to the fabulous medieval city of Carcassonne and back again. In September this year (2018), my brother and I, and our partners, ventured onto its waters again, hiring a Penichette and travelling from Negra (near Toulouse) east to Carcassonne and back again.
For those unfamiliar with canal boats, a Penichette is a small version of a Peniche, the traditional French freight barge designed in the 18th century, built specifically for self-drive passenger cruising on European canals. With three double bedroom cabins, a spacious lounge/dining cabin, two showers and two toilets, a fully equipped kitchen with a full size refrigerator, and a flying bridge with table and bench seats, it made a spacious, comfortable yacht for two couples.
In a leisurely 10-day cruise to Carcassonne and back, these were some of the highlights for me.
TREES AND TRANQUILITY
Plane trees line the towpath and the opposite bank, their interlocking branches forming a vaulted green nave. Above the vault, the morning sun, bright in an azure sky, bathes the Languedoc plain in warmth and promises a hot afternoon. But it is cool and still in the dappled shade, the perfect reflections of the plane trees in the canal’s mirrored surface disturbed only by the rippling wake of the Penichette as it glides past. The whisper and rustle of the reeds and bushes, as the disturbed water laps and tugs at their roots, merely accentuates the tranquillity. It is the iconic view of the canal, appreciated too by the bargees and their horses, for whom the trees provided welcome shade in the summer heat of the Languedoc. But it is threatened. A fungal canker (said to have been carried to France in American army ammunition boxes and other wartime crates) is infecting the plane trees resulting in areas denuded by remedial felling. Hopefully, the canal authority’s replanting program will preserve the shade and the tranquillity for future generations of canal cruisers.
SUNSET AT SÉGALA
Located on the highest reach of the canal, the tiny village of Le Ségala is halfway between the (Atlantic) Ocean Lock and the Mediterranean Lock where the descent to each begins. Le Ségala means “rye land,” there is no rye grown there today though; instead it is in centre of the largest sorghum-producing region of France. Despite being home to a large roof-tile making pottery, it does have its attractions. There is an original stone hump-backed bridge with moorings above and below it, a pleasant canal-side café and a large 18th century farmhouse now converted into nice looking holiday lettings. A 2km walk or cycle ride away is the village of Labastide-d’Anjou, which has a boulangerie for croissants and baguettes, a supermarket and a café. Just past the Mediterranean Lock is the Poterie Not, a family owned artisan pottery. Well worth a visit to see how cassoles (for Cassoulet) are made, but buying one is not so easy. Not salespersons they are not. We moored at Le Ségala overnight both outbound and inbound, and during the former were treated to one of the most fabulous sunsets I have seen anywhere.
Castelnaudary is an inland port built in the 17th century specifically to serve the Canal du Midi. While the suburbs house modern developments, the town centre has probably changed little since the 18th century, when its quays and Grand Basin handled major exports of grain from the surrounding Laurigais plains. Castelnaudary is also famous for Cassoulet, which it claims to have invented, and is home to the 4th Regiment of the French Foreign Legion, who take their morning run along the canal towpath to Vivier and back. At the western end of the Grand Basin (for which it serves as the pound) is a staircase of four large locks, which is an adventure for even the hardiest of lock enthusiasts.
Words can sometimes prove inadequate to describe the attraction of a place, and so it is with Carcassonne. Mentioned by Ptolemy in the 2nd century CE, the present old cité dates back to Roman and medieval times. Restored in the 19th century by French architect Viollet-le-Duc, it has a romantic, fairy-tale atmosphere. Under the Trencavel family, it was a centre of the Cathar faith in the 13th century and was besieged by Simon de Montfort on the orders of Pope Innocent III during the Albigensian Crusade. The surrender of the town prevented its sacking, but Count Raymond Trencavel was later executed in his own dungeon. The Cathar’s may have been persecuted to virtual extinction, but they are not forgotten by the people of Carcassonne, whose local authority has placed a sign denoting the old cité’s basilica as a church “assigned to the Roman Catholic cult.”
“Love and marriage ……. you can’t have one without the other.” So sang Frank Sinatra. Whether or not he was right, it is a fact that a canal boat holiday would not be the same without locks. Or, to put that another way, If you don’t like locks you shouldn’t book a canal boat holiday. There are 40 locks between Negra and Carcassonne and the same on the way back, including the four lock staircase at Castelnaudary, two triple locks and four doubles. The locks allow you the opportunity of impressing the French lockkeepers with your boathandling and seamanship skills, while practising keeping a straight face as less skilled crews bump and scrape their way through them. We watched wide eyed as one foredeck hand (nationality unnamed to prevent stereotyping) practised his cowboys skills with the free end of the bow line, losing control of the bow in the process and sending the boat careering sideways across the lock in the flood from the sluice gates.
Apart from being a source of entertainment, the Canal du Midi locks are interesting in themselves. The design of the oval shaped basins was revolutionary, the arched shape strengthening the walls against the pressure of the surrounding soil in the same way as the Romans use of arches to support bridges. One of the project engineers, a young man called Andreossy, toured Italy in order to study the locks designed by Leonardo da Vinci. The locks lift the canal to an altitude of 190 metres at the Narouze pass, which is the watershed between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Most of the original lockkeeper’s cottages still stand beside the locks. Some have been converted to holiday accommodation, others contain cafés and shops selling local produce. The lockkeepers, many of whom are women, work in shifts now, commuting to work by car or canal authority van. The majority are happy to have you practise your French on them, and will even help with mooring lines if they see you struggling.
Early morning and evening provide those with photographic skills the chance to express their inner artist. The combinations of plane trees, weeping willows, stone cottages and traditional looking canal craft bathed in soft sunlight and reflected in the flat calm water of the canal create some of the most memorable images of a boating holiday. We spent a marvellous evening moored beside the millrace above the Vivier triple lock. Watching the reflections as the sun set at the end of warm late summer day, drinking chilled rose and looking forward to a dinner of roast belly pork.
THE JOY OF FOOD
It may be a cliché that France is a food lover’s paradise, but it is also true. You won’t find many Michelin Star restaurants along the canal bank, but there are bistros such as the one at Gardouch. Established in the old lockkeepers cottage, it is both bar and restaurant and provides a warm welcome in French or English for thirsty and hungry canal boat travellers, as well as locals enjoying its waterside ambience. We ate prawns with Pernod and perfectly cooked, tender steaks with fresh salads, washed down with pichéts of local red and rosé. But you don’t have to rely on canal side bistros and cafes. The food markets of Castelnaudary, Carcassonne and Toulouse as well as the produce shops in the nearby villages sell a superb range of local cheeses, pates, preserved meats, breads, wines and fresh vegetables, fruit, fish and meats, sufficient to satisfy the most exacting gourmet or gourmand. Having a brother as boat skipper who is also a first rate cook, is an advantage. Selecting the best of the produce available at the markets, he prepared five star meals, including a tender, juicy rumsteak de cheval with fried onions and roast potatoes, accompanied by the full-bodied local red wine.
PIERRE PAUL RIQUET
The Canal du Midi owes its existence to Pierre Paul Riquet who, in 1663, convinced Louis XIV (the Sun King) that he had a feasible plan for its construction. So confident was he that he offered to finance the project himself. He was 63 when work began but, sadly, died before construction was complete. His sons and the King’s engineer completed the project, but the eventual cost so exceed Riquet’s original budget that it was 100 years before his family finally recovered their investment.
Just east of the Ocean Lock is the Col de Narouze, the highest point on the canal route and the site of a magnificent octagonal park of cedar and plane trees. The park was originally a reservoir for the canal, filled with waters carried from the Black Mountain north of Carcassonne by a feeder canal, the Rigole de la Plaine. The reservoir eventually silted up and the trees were planted, but the feeder canal remains and continues its function. Close by is the monument to Riquet, erected by his family in 1827. There is a mooring area beside the Ocean Lock from which it is a short walk through the park, down a glorious avenue of plane trees, to the feeder canal and the Obelisque de Riquet. It is a walk well worth taking, even though access to the monument is denied by a chained gate. There are lovely views from the monument across the sorghum fields towards the villages of Montferrand and Labastide-d’Anjou. Peaceful though they look now, they have seen their share of history. In 1355, the Black Prince led his marauding army this way, attacking Montferrand before going on the sack Castelnaudary and Carcassonne. And, In April 1814, following the British victory at Toulouse and the abdication of Napoleon (to Elbe) Marshall Soult and Wellington signed an armistice in a canal side cottage not far from where Riquet’s monument now stands.
Riquet employed some 12,000 workers to dig and construct the canal and its infrastructure. Perhaps surprisingly, a large number of them were women. Not just employed to shift earth to build dams and canals, many of them were already experienced in maintaining the irrigation and drinking water canals and structures of the Pyrenees, some dating back to Roman times. At a time when most of the French State’s engineers were focussed on building fortifications, the knowledge and experience of these women was vital to the successful construction of the Canal du Midi.
It is a shame that Riquet never lived to see the completion of his canal, but the fact that it remains fully functional and well used, is the best monument to his memory. And cruising slowly along its peaceful plane tree shaded reaches, and walking along its towpaths and the quays of its inland ports, it is not hard to feel oneself treading in the footsteps of the generations of bargees and their plodding horses, as they towed their wheat and wine barges across the wheat and vineyard mantled plains of the Midi and the Languedoc.